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NBA Daily: Kyle Kuzma Is The Lakers’ Key

As the third option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma is one of the most intriguing players in the NBA this season.

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After a long and drawn-out five-month saga, Anthony Davis finally made his way to Los Angeles. The deal was announced in June, one that would pair the perennial MVP candidate with LeBron James – but one with a historical cost. The Lakers traded away Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 overall selection in this past summer’s draft, multiple first-round picks and a pick swap for the rights to Davis. No franchise has given up that much for a single player in the modern NBA.

But when a star of Davis’s caliber is obtainable, and your present star’s window as a top-five player is closing, you do what you have to do. Every player on the Laker roster became available when it meant potentially landing Davis.

Every player except for one: Kyle Kuzma.

The Lakers notably kept Kuzma out of all trade talks over the last year. And when Adrian Wojnarowski broke the Davis deal on Jun. 15, he specifically mentioned that L.A. was able to “hold on to forward Kyle Kuzma.” The Utah product who has shown flashes amidst waves of inconsistent play was retained with two things in mind: One, the hope that he could someday develop into an All-Star. Secondly, that he would be the third guy behind LeBron and Davis. It’s the latter that makes him one of the most intriguing players in the league this year.

No other player who is being counted on as significantly as Kuzma is coming with so much uncertainty. Of the top-five championship favorites, all showcase known commodities.

Philadelphia boasts another year of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and claims the most talented starting five league-wide. Houston added Russell Westbrook and, while questions of fit remain, adding a walking triple-double to a scoring champion is an upgrade. Milwaukee is still built to augment Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strengths, bringing back everyone outside of Malcolm Brogdon from their 60-win team of a year ago. The Clippers are deep and developed around Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Their in-arena rivals, of course, have George coming off of a career year and top-three MVP finish and Leonard having just steamrolled his way to a title and a Finals MVP.

Even the second-tier guys on these teams – think Josh Richardson, Eric Gordon, Khris Middleton and Lou Williams – have shown who they are in the NBA. We know what to expect from them. There will be variance, but for the most part, they are established in what they bring as NBA players and have done so in the postseason.

But the jury is still out on Kuzma. Last year, he averaged 18.7 points per game with a below-average effective field goal percentage of 51.6 percent and a three-point percentage of 30 – not great for a player that profiles as a shooter. He still struggles on defense and held only a 0.2 value over replacement this past season; compare that with players like Richardson and Middleton, who were both at 1.7. Even more troubling, his box plus/minus is -1.5 for his career and his win shares per 48 minutes of .071 is under the league average of .100.

Despite this, Kuzma had stretches of being the scorer the Lakers want him to be. He scored over 20 points in a game 29 times last season and had 18 contests in which he hit three or more three-pointers. He did shoot the three well as a rookie, so it is not hard to see a scenario where he returns to that level playing alongside two stars.

And it can’t be discounted that when James injured his groin in December, Kuzma was left to carry a scoring burden he was not yet built for. A late first-rounder in his second season shouldn’t be expected to carry a team offensively that, at the time, was fourth in the Western Conference. James’ injury quickly meant that the Lakers were not playing for anything either. It is hard to judge a player this young in any setting – it is even harder to do so when he plays on a losing team, with a poorly-constructed roster, and in the media circus that is Los Angeles.

But when the Lakers acquired Davis, the chances of scrutiny skyrocketed and Kuzma’s room for error evaporated. Now, Kuzma is tasked with being the third star on a team with more urgency to win than almost any other. If he falls short, Los Angeles likely will too.

While not as ill-put-together as last year, the Lakers are still stitched together with the cap remains behind their two headliners. Danny Green is the only other player that can be confidently counted on to produce. Without Kuzma’s ascension, it is easy to envision a world where they do not have enough – and when a LeBron James-led team does not have enough, it can go south fast.

This is where Los Angeles finds themselves – a title favorite, with two future Hall of Famers and a handful of veterans tasked with filling the gaps. But no matter how well Davis and LeBron fit, and no matter how effectively the vets fall in around them, L.A.’s best chance at returning to the Finals is in the hands of 24-year-old Kyle Kuzma.

The Lakers did everything they could to keep him — now it is Kuzma’s turn to show the world why they did.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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